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Reprinted from the Wisconsin Magazine of History
Volume TV, Number 1, September, 1920






Reprinted from the Wisconsin Magazine of History
Volume IV, Number 1, September, 1920

"^040 1 (^

Julius E. Olson

In treating this subject of Lincoln in Wisconsin I shall
give but little time to Lincoln's participation in the Black
Mawk War of 1832, as that phase of his life has been ade-
quately presented by others. I desire mainly to call particu-
lar attention to the fact that Lincoln was in the state at that
time as a soldier, and hence not at liberty to roam about to
satisfy the natural curiosity of his inquiring mind. He was
among the first to respond to the call of Governor Reynolds
for troops to repel the invasion of Black Hawk. Though
but twenty-three years of age, he was chosen captain of a
company of militia, reported to have been a "hard set of
men." In commanding them Lincoln had at least one
opportunity to demonstrate his courage and his power to
sw^ay the minds of men, when he appeared as the defender of
an old Indian who had strayed into camp; the men thought
him a spy and wanted blood.

Before getting into Wisconsin Lincoln's company, with
others, was mustered out ; but not all of these men returned
to their homes. Lincoln reenlisted on the same day of his
discharge, May 28, and became a private in the Independent
Spy Company. As such he crossed the state line near
the site of Beloit on June 30, 1832. For ten days the troops
pressed northward up the Rock River, finding many traces
of the Indians, but encountering no warriors. On July 10
near Fort Atkinson the Company was mustered out by a
young officer who later was to become famous during the
Civil War, Major Robert Anderson; Lincoln and his com-
panions returned home before the battles of Wisconsin
Heights and Bad Axe brought the war to an end, August 2.
Lincoln's stay in Wisconsin was but brief, probably about a

4 Julius E. Olson

Besides giving Lincoln an exciting though bloodless
outing, and an opportunity to test his mettle as a man, this
war brought him to the notice of Major John F. Stuart, a
lawyer of Springfield, who befriended him as a student of
law and invited him in 1837 to become his law partner.

Lincoln's second visit to Wisconsin has been veiled in
more or less mystery. After a record in popular tradition of
nearly half a century, an account of it appeared in the
History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties published in
1881 by The Western Historical Company. This is a
pretentious and seemingly reliable volume of 763 pages, over
three hundred of which are devoted to the general history
of the state, and includes among its contributors such well-
known names as C. W. Butterfield, the historian. Professor
T. C. Chamberlin, State Geologist, Dr. P. R. Hoy, Profes-
sor Edward Searing, State Superintendent of Public
Instruction, Professor W. W. Daniells, and Professor Roland
D. Irving. These names induce faith in that part of the
work relating to the counties under special consideration,
though the name of the compiler is not given.

The passage relating to Lincoln appears in the history of

Port Washington, Ozaukee County, and reads as follows •}

The first dwelling house built in the village was erected by Gen.
Harrison in 1835. It is still standing, apparently in a good state of
preservation. It is a little story-and-a-half frame building, gable end,
the sills resting on the ground. A partition divides the first floor into
two apa rtments, and also the upper or half story. It was at this house
that the first votes of the town were polled. This old and time-worn
structure has become one of the sacred relics of the past, commanding
a prominent place in the history of the town of Port Washington, not
only on account of the relation it bears to the first white settler of the
village, but because it once served as a shelter to one of America's
greatest statesmen. It may be of interest to mention the fact that the
great and martyred President, Abraham Lincoln, during his days of
roughing it, once walked from Milwaukee to Sheboygan, and stopped
a night in this old house. After the defeat of the Merrimac by the
Monitor, Mr. Lincoln, in company with some of his Cabinet officers,
visited Fortress Monroe to get a practical knowledge of the fort. While

» P. 508.

Lincoln in Wisconsin 5

viewing the works, desiring some information, he approached an officer,
who proved to be Capt. Beger, from Port Washington. "Well, mj'
man," said Lincoln, "where are yon from?" "Port Washington,"
replied the Captain. "Fort Washington — let me see: that is in Wis-
consin, about twenty-five miles north of Milwaukee, is it not?" The
Captain answered that it was. "1 stopped there over night once,"
said the President; "just name over some of the men Avho lived there in
the early days." The Captain proceeded to name over quite a number,
finally mentioning that of Harrison. "Harrison, that is the man!"
said Mr. Lincoln. "I remember him well." He then walked ofi' to
join his escort, leaving Capt. Beger very much elated to think that his
town had been honored by the presence of so great a man.

This General Harrison was not a Harrison of national
fame. His name was Wooster Harrison, though familiarly
termed "General" Harrison by the old settlers. He was a
native of New York; the history we have cited says :^ "What
he lacked in education was supplied by a wonderful gift
of natural wit. His reputation for story-telling extended
throughout the whole of eastern Wisconsin. . . . He was
a man much sought after by the early settlers, when any
great gathering was to be held, to create mirth for the

It is not strange that Lincoln remembered him well.

The record of the county history is, in some details,
supplemented by an interview furnished by Harry W\ Bo-
lens, ex-mayor of Port Washington, which appeared in the
Milwaukee Daily A^ews, during the year of the Lincoln
Centenary, when so many new incidents of Lincoln's career
came to light. The interview refers to the story as told in
the county history, but gives the additional, though inciden-
tal, information that Lincoln's visit was "some time between
1835 and 1840 — the exact year is not known; he visited
Sheboygan, but concluded that place had no futiu-e before
it. He returned to Port Washington and stopped there for
two days, during which time he arranged with General
Harrison for the rent of quarters for his law office. This
was in the fall of the year, and the arrangement was that

'^ P. 542.

6 Julius E. Olson

Mr. Lincoln should return in the spring and take possession
of his quarters. In the spring, however, the floods put a
quietus on all travel — the West was fairly afloat in the
freshet, and the heavy rain storms kept up until late in
the summer. Under these conditions Mr. Lincoln decided
to locate elsewhere and later sent his regrets to General

Harry W. Bolens is the son of an enterprising and well-
known newspaper man; he was therefore in a position to
hear much of such traditional history as Lincoln's visit to
Port Washington. He is one of the leading business men of
Port Washington, has been its mayor, and is much inter-
ested in local history.

Now the question arises: Can these local traditions in
any way be verified or corroborated.'^ To try to do so is the
object of this paper.

In the first place, the statement that Captain Beger had
talked with President Lincoln is not lightly to be cast
aside. Captain Beger was born in Germany in 1841, came
to Wisconsin with his parents in 1846, enlisted in the army
in October, 1864, and served as a noncommissioned officer
until the end of the war, when he returned to Wisconsin.
Mr. Bolens writes me under date of March 24, 1920: "I
knew Captain Beger, who conversed with Lincoln, and he
told me the story many times."

Although tradition does not know the year of Lincoln's
visit to Port Washington, it reports that he was there in the
fall. This, we shall see, is significant.

The matter of the weather preventing Lincoln's return
to Pqrt Washington seems suspicious. But the records kept
by officers of the United States army at Fort Howard show
that 1836 was a year of abnormally heavy rainfall, the record
in the spring and summer being as follows: March, 3.2
inches; April, 6.37; May, 5.2; June, 3.5; and July, 5. 06.
This corroborates that part of the tradition relating to the

Lincoln in Wisconsin 7

weather and indicates that Lincoln visited Port Washing-
ton in the fall of 1835. If he saw General Harrison at Port
Washington he could not have done so in any other season
of that year, for Harrison did not get to the Port Washing-
ton region until September 7, 1835. We know definitely
about Lincoln's whereabouts during the whole of the year
1835 except during the months of October and November,
which, in the biographies, are absolutely blank.

The question now presents itself: Can Lincoln's visit
to Wisconsin, which tradition as amplified by the records of
the United States officers at Green Bay places in the fall of
the year 1835, be dovetailed into his life at New Salem .'^
This will lead into an absolutely new phase of the question,
and though the matter is supported by no such direct and
definitely reported fact as Captain Beger's interview, the
circumstantial evidence seems to me to be strong and
connects the visit with the great tragedy of Lincoln's life —
the untimely death of Ann Rutledge. This occurred August
25, 1835. I need not rehearse the details of this "saddest
chapter in Lincoln's life." It was long suppressed, evi-
dently out of tender consideration for others, but it is a
well-known story today. Herndon told it in 1866 in that
wonderful lecture which he called Abraham Lincoln, Miss
Ann Rutledge, New Salem, Pioneering, and the Poem.^ He
told it again in his great work on Lincoln, and others have
retold it in the form of both history and fiction."*

In brief, the effect upon Lincoln was overwhelming. It
caused him to walk the narrow path between sanity and
insanity. As Herndon puts it in the lecture : "He sorrowed
and grieved, rambled over the hills and through the forests,
day and night. He suffered and bore it for a while like a
great man — a philosopher. He slept not, he ate not, joyed
not. This he did until his body became emaciated and weak

' Springfield, Illinois, 1910.

* See The Soul of Ann Rutledge, by Bernie Babcock, 1919.

8 Julius E. Olson

and gave way. His mind wandered from its throne." Then
later, Herndon has these significant words: ''The friends of
Mr. Lincoln — men, women and children — begged him to quit
his home and "place of business. They coaxed and threatened
him by turns, in order to get him to quit the places and
scenes of his sorrows and griefs."

Herndon further records that in September Mr. Lincoln
was induced to go into the country to spend some time with
his good friends Bowlin Green and wife and adds that "in
the space of a week or ten days . . . Lincoln rose up, a
man once more. ... He got well and bade adieu, for a
short season, to Bowlin's kind roof and generous hospi-
tality. ... He went back to New Salem, as thought, a
radically changed man. He went to New Salem about the
last of September a.d. 1835."

Herndon then tells of Lincoln's fondness for the poem
"Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud?" and
concludes his lecture with this sentence: "It was about the
20th day of October a.d. 1835 that Abraham Lincoln, as he
wandered and wended his sad and melancholy way over
hill and dale, gloomily burst forth" — and here follows the
whole of the poem.

Now it is to be remarked that that lone date, "the
20th day of October a.d. 1835," is the only date I can find
in the Lincoln biographies for the autumn months of Octo-
ber and November, 1835, and in the setting Herndon gives
it, it seems strangely discordant and insignificant.

But even with that menacing obstacle to my argument,
there was ample time after October 20th, or even before it,
to have made the journey into Wisconsin under comfortable
conditions of weather.

It is not possible in this paper to take up the question of
the practicable possibility of such a lone trip as early as
1835, except to call attention to the fact that two years
earlier the pioneer of Norwegian emigration, Kleng Peerson,

Lincoln in Wisconsin 9

walked from Chicago to Milwaukee alone. ^ There was an
Indian trail from Chicago to Green Bay.

And why should Lincoln at this time have a desire to
visit Wisconsin?

If he was to follow the advice of his friends, as Herndon
puts it, "to quit the places and scenes of his sorrows and
griefs," to what better place could he have gone? He had
seen enough of that region during his brief period of soldier-
ing to know that it had many attractions. In fact, the Black
Hawk War was Wisconsin's introduction to the American
people. "There was an immediate and rapid increase of
immigration, not only in the mining region but in various
other parts of what is now Wisconsin, more especially in that
portion bordering on Lake Michigan."^ Lincoln surely
knew of this strong trend of immigration." Then he may
have wanted to see Lake Michigan, particularly as the east-
ern part of the state was the most accessible. From his
early experiences with river boats we know that he was fond
of the water.

Such was the depth of Lincoln's sorrow after the death
of Ann Rutledge that he may have thought he could not
live and labor where she had died. Be that as it majs he
was well enough in October, 1835, to realize that a change of
scene would be beneficial. And to support this assumption
it is possible to cite an analogous case in the life of Lincoln
where he spoke of the advantage of "a change of scene."
These are Lincoln's own words, used in a letter to his close
friend, Joshua F. Speed, dated March 27, 1842. This
was at a time after "that fatal first of January, 1841,"
when he wrote to his law partner. Major Stuart, in Congress:
"I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel

^ At Milwaukee Peerson found only two white men, Solomon Juneau and his brother.

' History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties (Chicago, 1881), 40.

^ "Returning troopers praised her soil and fertility. Eastern newspapers exploited
her inviting opportunities for emigrants. Pamphlet literature furnished travelers*
guides." Louise P. Kellogg, in Wisconsin Magazine of History, September, 1919, 40.

10 Julius E. Olson

were equally distributed to the whole human family, there
would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I
shall ever be better, I cannot tell ; I awfully forebode I shall
not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be
better, it appears to me. ... I say this because I fear I
shall not be able to attend to any business here, and a change
of scene might help me. If I could be myself I would rather
remain at home with Judge Logan. I can write no more."
The following summer he visited his good friend Speed in
his Kentucky home "and was much helped by the change of
scene. ^

I trust that this investigation has fixed the year of
Lincoln's visit to Port Washington and established the fact
that it was made in consequence of the great tragedy of his
life, the death of Ann Rutledge in 1835, "that strange, love-
ly, heroic, pathetic story, which so many have tried to tell,
but which still awaits the touch of a master hand."^ When
that master appears, as he surely will, it will enhance his
interest in the tale if it may truthfully be added that Lincoln
sought surcease of his great grief by a visit to the wilds of the
territory of Wisconsin, and even thought of making his home

Lincoln's third visit to Wisconsin was made in 1859, the
year after the great debates with Stephen A. Douglas. He
was invited to make an address at the State Fair held in
Milwaukee September 30, upon the invitation, in Lincoln's
words, "of the Agricultural Society of the young, prosper-
ous, and soon to be great State of Wisconsin." On this
occasion he made a remarkable address on agriculture,
which in recent years due to the increasing interest in
scientific agriculture has attracted much attention; for in
this address Lincoln flashed forth a vision of agricultural

* Joseph Fort Newton, Lincoln and Herndon (Cedar Rapids, 1910), 16.

• Ihid.. 12.

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A PAGE OF Lincoln's Milwaukee address

12 Julius E. Olson

progress that only recently has been realized through our
great iVmerican agricultural experiment stations.

This speech was printed in the Milwaukee Sentinel
the day after its delivery ;^° in the Proceedings of the Agricul-
tural Society of Wisconsin; and in the C. S. Hammond and
Company's edition of Lincoln's works, published in 1907.
It is not, so far as I know, mentioned in any other of the
biographies. At the time of the Lincoln centenary this
address was not known to the Agricultural College of the
University of Wisconsin. Some years afterwards I called
the attention of the authorities to it, and later a special
bulletin containing most of the address was published by
the college for distribution among the farmers of Wisconsin
as an inspiration to their agricultural efforts. I have at
present in my possession a page of the manuscript in Lin-
coln's handwriting used for the Milwaukee address. It was
presented to Lathrop E. Smith of Madison by a Sentinel
printer the year the speech was delivered. A facsimile of
this page accompanies this sketch. The day after the

'" Considering the reputation that Lincoln had won in his debates with Stephen A .
Douglas, he received scant editorial mention from the Sentinel on the occasion of his visit
to Milwaukee in 1859. The paper did, however, print his speech in full, with the comment
that "it is in every sense a practical and readable effort, and will repay attentive perusal."

The address made in Beloit was very fully reported, although not verbatim, in the
Beloit Journal of October 5, 1859. The newspaper report of the Janesville speech is not
so full. But the details of Lincoln's visit to both Beloit and Janesville are still remem-
bered by some of the older citizens.

Although the Milwaukee papers made but slight editorial mention of Lincoln in
1859, there was fortunately present at his address a newspaper man who did make signi-
ficant comment. He represented a paper called The Wisconsin Pinery, published at
Stevens Point. The article was entitled "Old Abe," and runs as follows: "Lincoln
delivered a short address which he had nicely written out, folded in the Wisconsin, and
tucked away under his left arm, when I first saw him. His heart and other internal ar-
rangements are a long way from his head. He looks as if he was made for wading in deep
water. The women say he is homely, — I say he is handsome. He has a long nose, a
wrinkled, clean-shaven face, large dark eyes, black eye-brows, a forehead that juts over
his eyes like a cornice, long and full, sloping up into a wealth of black hair. He looks like
an open-hearted, honest man who has grown sharp in fighting knaves. His face is swarthy
and filled with very deep, long thought-Avr inkles. He inspires confidence. His hearers
feel sure that he will not lead them astray, or fail to make a point if he attempts to. I
think he is very much like Clay, without the light complexion and fiery enthusiasm. His
voice is not heavy, but has a clean trumpet tone that can be heard an immense distance.
Except N. P. Banks, I never heard a man who could talk to a large crowd with such ease.
The address was a short sweet Lincolnism. He thrust a stiletto into Hammond's 'mud-
sill' theory. It did not please everybody, I suppose, and therefore it was something
positive and good."

Lincoln in Wisconsin 13

Milwaukee address Mr. Lincoln spoke at Beloit in the
afternoon and in the city of Janesville in the evening.^^ On
both occasions he made political speeches.

" An account of this visit to Beloit and Janesville is given in Wis. Hist. Colls. XIV


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Online LibraryJulius Emil OlsonLincoln in Wisconsin → online text (page 1 of 1)